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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Judge Posner discusses Domestic Intelligence

The writer is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago. He will take questions at 2 p.m. today at http://www.washingtonpost.com.

Here are some quotes from his op-ed, Our Domestic Intelligence Crisis:

Other Pentagon agencies have gotten into the domestic intelligence act, such as the Information Dominance Center, which developed the Able Danger data-mining program.

These programs are criticized as grave threats to civil liberties. They are not. Their significance is in flagging the existence of gaps in our defenses against terrorism. The Defense Department is rushing to fill those gaps, though there may be better ways....

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act makes it difficult to conduct surveillance of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents unless they are suspected of being involved in terrorist or other hostile activities. That is too restrictive. Innocent people, such as unwitting neighbors of terrorists, may, without knowing it, have valuable counterterrorist information. Collecting such information is of a piece with data-mining projects such as Able Danger.

The goal of national security intelligence is to prevent a terrorist attack, not just punish the attacker after it occurs, and the information that enables the detection of an impending attack may be scattered around the world in tiny bits. A much wider, finer-meshed net must be cast than when investigating a specific crime. Many of the relevant bits may be in the e-mails, phone conversations or banking records of U.S. citizens, some innocent, some not so innocent. The government is entitled to those data, but just for the limited purpose of protecting national security.

The Pentagon's rush to fill gaps in domestic intelligence reflects the disarray in this vital yet neglected area of national security. The principal domestic intelligence agency is the FBI, but it is primarily a criminal investigation agency that has been struggling, so far with limited success, to transform itself. It is having trouble keeping its eye on the ball; an FBI official is quoted as having told the Senate that environmental and animal rights militants pose the biggest terrorist threats in the United States. If only that were so.